By Wesley James
What an evolution, and what fun. Barney the Elf returns this year sleeker, funnier, more joyful, and every bit as gay. Those who’ve seen it before will miss the Greek chorus of drag-queens, but they’re the only thing; many of the superfluous songs and jokes have been cut, exchanged for great pacing and much cleaner comedy. Barney has skipped blithely over every stagnant trap a returning Christmas show could succumb to – it’s fresh and refined, sealing its place and begging to be revisited next year.
Barney the Elf is a gay jukebox musical parody of the movie Elf written by Bryan Renaud, who plays the eponymous Barney. In the wake of Santa’s death, the inspirationally eager Barney is banished from the North Pole by Santa’s bitter son Jr. (Jonathon Parker Jackson) for the crime of being gay. With guidance from the widow Claus (Maggie Cain), Barney makes his way to Chicago where he falls in love with Zooey (the stage-stealing Dixie Lynn Cartwright), a drag-queen with her work cut out for her in explaining the drag world to Barney. When Santa Jr. runs into trouble making Christmas run on time, it’s up to Barney and his new relationship to bring cheer back to Christmas.
Nothing serves as a better foil to Barney’s naivety than that dry, snarky drag-queen wit – this version has a little less of a love story, and considerably less exploration into drag; those things have been exchanged for heightened comedy and stronger character contrast. What we’ve also gained are moments of extreme genuinity – Zooey’s first appearance on stage is as sudden and breathtaking to us as it is to Barney, and there are lots of moments like that – as great as the drag-queen narrators were, the best and most surprising moments of the play have proven the story is clean enough to eschew narration.
The play is fast and funny; the story covers a lot in a little time without ever feeling rushed. Barney has hit a strong balance, dialing back character exposition and letting hilarious, fully committed, cartoonish performances carry our investment. Renaud's take on Barney brings a welcome depth to the character – he wiggles and jokes and encourages, but he takes on the many hard lessons of the world with an unexpected and not overly comic vulnerability. Dixie Lynn Cartwright brings a hilariously grounded presence to a world of flighty, cartoony caricatures, always a lovely contrast. The Claus family at odds is consistently delightful, and the vital ensemble make a lot of heavy lifting look easy. Special ensemble mentions to Molly LeCaptain, who takes the lead in a mutinous song and commands our interest with no main characters on stage, and to the all the men’s well-objectified abs.
Barney is back, and hopefully here to stay. It’s fast, funny, joyful, real, and gay.
Barney the Elf is presented by The Other Theatre Company. The production runs at The Greenhouse Theater Center through January 1st, 2017. More info. Read last year's review here.